I have spring fever.
All the signs are there: I’ve been sleeping with my windows wide open, cleaning out my closet, and leaving my scarf, hat and gloves at home in the hopes of greeting another 70 degree day.
There’s only one problem. With last month’s butter-filled trip to the French Culinary Institute I have been feeling a little sluggish and not quite bikini ready. I need a miracle – a cleansing, healing, curative miracle. And I found one in Brooklyn.
I spent last Thursday doing detox — and planting Wheatgrass with the friendly folks from Greener Pastures – an urban farm in the borough of Brooklyn. Later that week I experienced the medicinal benefits of the juice born of these blades of grass.
I hopped on the R train and traveled from Union Square to Union Street. I rose from the subway stairwell in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, situated roughly between Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. Gowanus is one of the few remaining manufacturing neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But if I am attempting a cleanse, I’m not quite sure the grit of Gowanus is the right place to get the job done. And how can a series of streets filled with steel and sawdust provide fertile ground for the growing?
I round the corner onto Sackett Street and find the door marked 575. As I enter the grey industrial space I am greeted by Sam, Sascha and Stewart. Sam and Sasha are friendly canines. Stewart is a friendly farmer.
Stewart even looks like a farmer with his grass stained jeans and his soil stained fingernails. Stewart is slender and strong. Hardworking and humorous. He is the doctor of the dirt who doles out his holistic drugs on a daily basis.
I’m anxious to down my detoxifying drink but I am nearly 6 days away from that glass of grass. First, I’ve got to grow my own greens.
I start by standing over a large stainless steel sink and scrubbing hundreds of plastic containers to prep them for planting. After dousing the plastics with a gunshot stream of water power I load the trays into the bright orange shopping cart. The cloud of condensation surrounding me feels more like a ride on the Maid of the Mist than a day on the farm. My rain boots are the only thing protecting me from the flood forming beneath my feet. I am soaked.
Our planters are ready for soil and seed and I am ready to try my hand at farming – albeit urban farming. Like the passing of the torch, Stewart hands me a well-worn plastic Tupperware container and instructs me to dip it into the mountain of soil that sits in the wheelbarrow near our farming table. The Tupperware container happens to have the perfect measurements for filling our trays 3/4’s full with soil – it also happens to be discontinued. If I have learned one thing these last few months, it is that having the right equipment is essential to my success – so I appreciate Stewart’s attempt to hold the crumbling container together with many rounds of masking tape. With our home-repaired version of a shovel, we spend the next few hours filling our pots with soil and preparing for seeding.
Stewart guides my hands as I gently sprinkle the wheat seeds in a circular motion atop the soil. I am shocked and surprised at how difficult it is to evenly seed the soil. On my first attempt my tray suffered from empty spaces and steep summits. Stewart keeps my spirits high with a series of jokes (a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…) and stories about his urban farm (this space actually used to be a coffin factory). After a few tries I start to get a feel for it. The seed bucket becomes an extension of my hand and in one circular motion I start to evenly seed the soil. By the end, my 10th tray, I can close my eyes and still have a lay of the land.
Stewart watches me like a hawk. Too few seeds and I’ll miss out on some body-healing blades of grass. Too many seeds in one spot and I’ll over-populate the soil. They should touch but shouldn’t be on top of each other. Sounds like a good guideline for first dates as well.
My seeds are set. I am still soaked from my kitchen sink shower and now I am covered up to my elbows in soil. The warehouse is cold, damp and dark – and I am dirty.
I’ve spent several hours digging in the dirt and seeding the soil and I am feeling frustrated. I wanted to purge my body of all that butter and add enzymes and amino acids to my system. I was hoping for purification, detoxification and rehabilitation. I was looking to restore the balance to my blood and cure my common cold. It looks like I’ll have to wait.
The challenge with farming, I learn, is that you work and you toil and you labor – and then you wait.
Waiting, I’m used to. I feel like, lately, I’m always waiting. Waiting for the E train to arrive at the West 4th Street Station so I can head out to Queens to visit my family. Waiting on the checkout line at the Gourmet Garage so I can rush home to bake a flourless chocolate cake or cook up a rib eye steak. Even waiting for love to arrive around the next corner. Waiting — I’m getting good at. And now, I find myself waiting for blades of grass to grow. But will all this waiting be worth it?
We load the wheatgrass trays into a room where misting water gently coaxes the grass to grow. This is a true urban farm: no greenery in the ground – just tabletop growing at its best. The space is an eclectic mix & match of parts much like my canine friends (Sam is a lab/chow and Sascha a pit/husky). The floors are a grey cement, the walls are brick with a messy mortar stacked in between and the garage doors are a moody blue. The space is dark and shady and filled with soil and dirt. The only brightness comes from Stewart’s quirky smile and the shiny green blades of grass starting to peek their way out of the soil.
I’ve got 6 more days to go before I see the full fruits of my labor. But once the grass has grown, will the juice from these crops be a cure-all? Will the waiting be worth it? I must admit, I am a little skeptical. An old coffin factory in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn is an unlikely place to perform lifesaving acts.
Wheatgrass juice is said to have life-altering effects. It has been known to increase red blood-cell count and lower blood pressure. It cleanses the blood, organs and gastrointestinal tract of debris. Wheatgrass stimulates metabolism and the thyroid gland, correcting obesity and indigestion. It might even be a cure for cancer. Seems too good to be true. It was time to put the grass to the test.
After a week of waiting, I find myself soaking up the early spring at a packed farmers market in Union Square. I wander over to the crowd formed around the yellow school bus just off Union Square West. I make my way to the front of the pack and see Stewart’s smiling face and sinewy frame. A welcome sight. On the table between us are a series of pots of wheatgrass that have grown 6 inches in height and are sparkling in the sunshine.
Stewart cuts the grass we grew only one week before. He slowly feeds the blades of wheatgrass into the hand crank juicer. The juice emerges – dark green with a layer of foam on top.
I down the shot and hope for the best. The taste is strong and sweet, green and grassy. I don’t know if one glass will be enough to erase those butter filled weeks. A few more glasses of wheatgrass – and time – only that will tell.
I leave the farmers market and wind my way back to Bleecker. I feel a strange spring in my step — a bit of energy in the air around me. Maybe it’s due to the usually warm weather. Or maybe it’s because I am playing hooky and away from work in the middle of the day. Or maybe – just maybe – it’s the wheatgrass. Just the idea of ingesting something so green and so good for me – that alone sets my mind at ease. And maybe that alone is enough.
Several weeks of working in NYC’s top kitchens has trained me to pick up my pace, speed up my slicing and spice up my sauces. After a day of planting and a week of waiting I have learned the value of slowing things down a bit. In a city of constant chaos and a culture of instant gratification I realize, there’s really no rush. There are goals to accomplish. There are ladders to climb. There are small successes to accumulate. But there’s no gift in getting there quicker. In fact, I think the opposite is true: Slow and steady wins the race. The simple lessons learned from a day of digging in the dirt extend far and wide. Farming is a lesson in patience. A lesson worth learning. Especially when body-healing benefits are the result.
The farmer works. The farmer waits. The farmer is rewarded.